2018 Predictions and Resolutions: Reining in iOS Upgrades for Older iPhones

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First off, Happy New Year!!

As we start out 2018, I am going to be covering a few New Year’s Resolutions and Predictions for Apple. First off today, I’m going to make a suggestion that may be a little controversial. In 2018, I believe that Apple should resolve to take a hard look at how they support legacy iPhone hardware for the good of both themselves, and their customers. More specifically, my suggestion is that Apple limit all iPhones to no more than two iOS upgrades going forward.

Apple has invested a lot of time and effort into supporting legacy iOS devices with OS updates for three to four years after their original release, and have done it for several years. This has always made for a good marketing sound bite and is a handy talking point when going back and forth with Android fans. However, now may be a good time for Apple to pull back the reigns a bit.

There is an ever-present argument against companies supporting legacy hardware or software for an extended period. I deal with the exact same issues in my job every day, where systems are expected to last between 10 and 15 years, and it isn’t out of the ordinary to see 20 to 25 year old controls in buildings. It can be an ENORMOUS challenge to support hardware and software this old.

The expectations in mobile technology are very different, but the challenges are the same in both hardware and software. Producing and procuring older components becomes a challenge after the two year mark. That may sound ridiculous, but in an industry bent on new features and thinner, lighter, faster year after year, there is little room for first party legacy support. At the end of the day, there isn’t any money in tying up production lines that can be churning out newer, more popular products. So producing and supporting old hardware isn’t as easy as it may seem on the surface and in many cases, it actually costs more.

As for software, you are also lucky if you get any OS updates past year one from most Android vendors other than Google themselves. Apple has set themselves up as the primary exception to this point, and it has largely worked in their favor in the past. However, there are downsides to this supposedly consumer friendly practice. The first is…

Legacy Support is a Drain on Manpower and Can Hinder Talent Acquisition and Retention

Programming, engineering, and design talent is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley, and there is intense competition between both the leading tech companies and startups to bring it in. The biggest lure for most of these high-level people who have their choice of employers is working on new products that feature cutting edge technology. Massaging OS updates to fit two and three year old hardware is not a task that is going to keep top talent on your payroll. In fact, this is a easy way to create a revolving door moving in the wrong direction. The challenge becomes, if you can’t hold onto people making them “pay their dues” or “work their way up” by supporting older hardware and software, then who is doing it? Is the B or C team capable of handling this?

Beyond the acquisition and retention of top-tier talent, there is also the question of just how big Apple has become and the labor challenges that come with that. Their hardware and software offerings have ballooned over the past ten years, and the size of the company has grown exponentially to match. Unfortunately, that growth has brought management and organizational challenges that Apple has yet to fully master. The infamous no password root access login gaffe in macOS High Sierra and the LTE/WiFi connection issue with the Apple Watch Series 3 at release are examples of two QA issues in 2017 that should NEVER have made it out the door. iOS 11 was no exception, as the animation issue that caused calculation inaccuracies in the Calculator app is EXACTLY the kind of legacy software upkeep issue I’m talking about.

I’m not suggesting that these are easy problems to solve and that Apple is failing where everyone else is succeeding. On the contrary, I’m saying that these are very difficult challenges that many large companies across different industries struggle with. Some ways to make management easier is to clear out the clutter and offload programs, features, and services that are unnecessary and create resource drag- too much effort for too little in return.

While I know many of you will argue to the contrary, I believe that iOS updates to older hardware ARE unnecessary today, and I’ll get into reasons why straight away. I also firmly believe that they are now doing more harm to Apple than good. Rolling back legacy support to the lowest practical level will help to free manpower for more important tasks and make task management easier

iOS Updates to Older Devices are the Root of Many User Complaints

If you are a technical person who is an Apple user, then you have probably fielded your share of device support questions from friends and family. I know I have. I have no idea how many times that I’ve been asked about new iOS updates slowing older phones down or causing problems. Before you start in about the current uproar over Apple throttling devices with worn batteries, this talking point goes back LONG before iOS 10, which is when that throttling “feature” was introduced. At least 75% of the questions I’ve answered for ten years have been about this or similar issues. In the vast majority of cases, the user in question didn’t care about upgrading to gain additional features or security patches. They did it because their phone constantly notified them to, and they simply complied.

That is the problem with the way Apple is approaching iOS upgrades since their move away from upgrading via iTunes and a cable connection to on-device upgrades and patches. Most of Apple’s most knowledgeable and sophisticated users are going to be more likely to either have the latest model iPhone, or upgrade at least every two years. I’ve upgraded every year since the original iPhone using other family plan lines upgrades, by selling old phones and paying out of contract remainders, now through Apple’s iPhone Replacement Plan. Many other mobile tech and Apple enthusiasts have done the same, as well.

The average user who doesn’t care about mobile technology and is ambivalent about Apple is going to be less likely to fully know about or understand the potential impact of an iOS upgrade on their device. These users will also be more likely to hold onto older hardware. With good intentions, Apple has created a system that generates more negative feedback than customer goodwill by baiting users into upgrading devices that may be better off staying where they are. The narrative that Apple was slowing down older phones to “force” customers to upgrade was around long before the recent throttling controversy exactly because of users who upgraded due to notifications and found their user experience diminished. Some of that can be avoided.

There is actually an easy fix short of ending legacy iOS updates that Apple could implement to help with this particular issue. Again, ff you ask most average users why they upgrade iOS when they don’t have to, again, the typical answer is because their iPhone is constantly bugging them to do so. If Apple would just add the ability to decline the update and end the constant notifications, users who are happy to continue using the previous version of iOS might do so. It really doesn’t make sense to push updates on those who have no interest in them and stand the most chance of being dissatisfied with the results.

One and Two Year Payment Plan Upgrade Cycles Make Legacy Updates Less Necessary in Apple’s Most Important Markets

I think Apple has been slow to adjust to the change in how most people buy cell phones today. When two year cell phone contracts were a staple of the industry in the United States, there was an expectation that many users would hang onto their iPhones longer than just two years. The big reason was because there was always an up-front cost for a new or one year old device, usually $99-$199, at the time of purchase. Many users would pay off their contracts, but hang onto their phones for another year or more to avoid the up-front charge and get the most out of their money.

All of that has changed thanks to the end of device subsidies and two year contracts, and the beginning of device payment plans. All of the major US cell carriers have payment plans that allows you to get a new model iPhone for only the sales tax and possibly an upgrade fee, which you can often get waived, up front. Apple also has their own iPhone Replacement Plan, which works the same way. Most, if not all, of these plans also offer the user the option to turn in their device and upgrade yearly.

The difference between the current payment plans and the old contract system is that many more users are going to be upgrading every one or two years. Why not? Whether or not a person highly technical or interested in smartphone technology, they are now incentivized to upgrade to new hardware more often because it is cheaper and easier to do so. With more users upgrading more often, there is less of a need to support a three year old iPhone with a new OS update.

What is the Benefit of Continued Legacy Support at This Point?

I’ve defended and praised Apple on plenty of occasions for providing customers with multiple iOS updates covering three or more years. However, looking back, I can’t think of a single instance when one of these updates has run better on a three or more year old hardware than the previous version. In some cases, the upgrades have slowed older devices to a crawl. In others, the issues have been more minor, but the experience still suffers.

Other than adding potential security updates, these legacy upgrades usually do more harm to the user experience than good, and many of their new features won’t be compatible with older phones. If the only tangible benefit of upgrading is for security patches, then why not just issue critical patches for the previous version of iOS to keep all supported devices up to date? I know this involves a little extra effort on Apple’s part, but so does making a new OS work on old hardware.

The Potential Issues

If Apple made this change, I honestly don’t think it will have much of an impact in North America or Europe. Most of the people who are satisfied with older hardware will be perfectly happy to stay on the previous version of iOS. The only issue that might eventually affect them in this scenario would be App Store support. As developers move on to exclusively support newer versions of iOS, users on older versions will no longer receive updates to those apps. As long as Apple would continue to provide critical security updates, this should be the only downside for most legacy hardware users in Apple’s biggest markets.

The more serious issue with Apple capping iOS upgrades at two years would be the potential negative impact on sales in developing markets. Apple is selling older iPhone models, both new and refurbished, at reduced prices in many areas of the world where their new hardware is too expensive to gain any traction. For example, the iPhone 6S is still for sale as a new device as we enter 2018, and many analysts feel that it is still in the lineup because of its more appealing price point for areas where Apple has traditionally been far too expensive.

Since the iPhone 6S is a two year old device, it would be capped at iOS 11 under my proposal. That means that anyone who buys it new this year wouldn’t have the opportunity to upgrade at all. While that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in the Android world, especially with the lower cost phones that would be prevalent in developing markets, it would be a very different approach for Apple.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, you have to ask if the good of limiting iOS upgrades outweighs the bad. Does the savings trump the potential for loss? Does the positive impact outweigh any backlash? A move like this would never be lauded by the masses because Apple would be scaling back something they used to offer, but I don’t think there would be much complaint about it outside of the tech press, either. They complain about everything, so I don’t think that really matters.

In my opinion, the downside of this move would be minimal. Apple would still be guaranteeing that the majority of its iPhone purchasing customers would see either one or two iOS upgrades for their devices. Users who are upgrading on a one or two year cycle as part of a payment plan would never be affected by this.

The biggest positive is that stopping at two upgrades should insure that users who hang onto their older devices don’t see a negative impact to their user experience because they complied with a notification pushing an update they likely don’t need. This is a positive impact that won’t be felt directly, but if it preserves a better user experience for users of older devices and keeps complaints down, then its a small win for both Apple and their customers.

While there is a potential negative impact in regards to selling older phones at cheaper prices in emerging markets, I think that is offset by the competition Apple faces there. These older iPhones are competing with low price Android phones, many of which don’t even come with the Play Store or the “Google Experience” apps. Again, the majority of them will never see a single Android update, either. Because of this, I don’t think Apple would be out of line selling iPhones that will never see an iOS upgrade up against them.

When all is said and done, I think both Apple and their users would benefit from locking iOS upgrades at two years. For Apple, this would free up some valuable labor resources and prevent a revolving door of people leaving the company to escape legacy support duties for more exciting work elsewhere. It would also cut down on user complaints after iOS releases down the road. For the users who would actually be affected, this would also be a good move. This will prevent upgrades to older devices that can negatively impact how the user feels about both their device and Apple in general. Also, the vast majority of users will still get at least one iOS upgrade for their iPhone. In today’s fast-moving mobile tech market, I think that’s reasonable. Come on Apple. It’s time to let go a little.

P.S.- A Potential Alternative

I realize that this may not be a practical solution, but an alternative to Apple limiting devices to iOS upgrades would be for them to release a dedicated tool for macOS and Windows that could roll unwanted iPhone upgrades back. If Apple could pull this off, then anyone who isn’t satisfied with an upgrade could return to the previous version soon after with little to no negative impact.

Right now, the process using iTunes is difficult and non-intuitive for a novice user, which will prevent most from even trying. A tool that connects to the iPhone, automatically downloads the correct version of iOS, puts the phone in DFU mode, applies the downgrade, and then restores as much of the user’s data as possible would make this a viable alternative. As part of this, Apple would also have to continue to “sign” the last update for the previous version of iOS. Today, Apple stops signing older versions at a certain point soon after the release of a new one, making it impossible to return to an older version of iOS without Jailbreaking.

While this alternative would give customers more choice, and should still cut down on some user complaints, the development and upkeep of such a piece of software would actually put more burden on Apple’s programming labor pool, rather than taking any away. It would be a much more difficult and costly solution to implement, so I ultimately think that a two upgrade limit is a better way to go.

How about you? Do you think Apple users should expect more than two iOS upgrades for each generation of device, or do you agree with me that it’s time for Apple to drop some legacy support for the good of all involved? Let me know what you think in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.


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5 thoughts on “2018 Predictions and Resolutions: Reining in iOS Upgrades for Older iPhones”

  1. Well thought through argument but have to say I don’t agree with the conclusion. The long expected life of Apple devices is a very big selling point and there must be advantages to Apple in having a large proportion of users on the most up to date OS. I like to buy top specs and then keep for a long time with the date when the device can’t run the latest OS being a signal that it is maybe time for an upgrade.

    1. I see your point. I just think two years of full support is enough to satisfy most customers who will care about upgrading. If the user experience after upgrading a device a third or fourth time is diminished, wouldn’t it be better to keep those older devices where they are?

      To be fair, I am looking at this as someone who upgrades their iPhone every year. Now that I am writing here, I really have to keep all my Apple devices up to date, not that I mind that. Still, I would understand if others who don’t see it differently. It’s just an idea, and maybe not a realistic or even good one. I really don’t think Apple would do it, but a lot of New Year’s Resolutions aren’t realistic, so I don’t feel too bad.

  2. Very good observations indeed! Apple must increase the facilities to their consumers and create better future for their business considering Android and other competitors. In my opinion, Nokia with Android is a big competitor for Apple. Thanks for the great article.

  3. I’m either missing something or confused with this statement, “ All of the major US cell carriers have payment plans that allow you to get a new model iPhone for only the sales tax and possibly an upgrade fee, which you can often get waived, up front.” I got my wife a newer iPhone and we pay a lot more than the sales tax. Am I missing some context here?

    Thanks

    1. Up front. Instead of the big lump payment of $199 or more at the outset of the contract, you are only required to pay the sales tax and maybe an activation or upgrade free UP FRONT with a payment plan. At least the ones I am familiar with.

      That sentence just wasn’t very clear, in retrospect. Sorry for the confusion.

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